School Board Again Faces Calls for Discipline Changes

Santa Ana School Board President
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More than a dozen Santa Ana parents, students and community activists reiterated their calls Tuesday night for school officials to implement a new platform that would cut down on suspensions and, they said, create better school environments for students.

In particular, activists called on the Santa Ana Unified School District to fully implement restorative intervention, begin to phase-out suspensions for “willful defiance” and reduce student arrests.

To emphasize the point, student Juan Julio said his life was turned around when he was sent to an academy that emphasizes restorative justice rather than being expelled from Santa Ana High School.

“I love school now. I love being there, and it has changed my mind,” Julio said.

Abraham Medina, an advocate with Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color who was a facilitator at the academy Julio attended, emphasized that underlying difficulties contribute to behavioral issues at school.

“We cannot disregard or ignore that our students are suffering different types of trauma,” said Medina.

This and other testimony, which was largely organized by advocates at Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, came during the district’s public hearing for a new action plan for over $56 million in extra state funding the district will receive this year. In all, 14 community members testified about the document, known as a local control accountability plan.

Speakers also sought the creation of a supportive school climate committee that would meet regularly and be led by parents, students and community members.

“Each school should have a committee to improve the school climate,” said Fabiola Lua, a mother of three Santa Ana Unified students, through a translator.

Additionally, the speakers asked the district to regularly publish data on school discipline and implement anti-bullying training for school administrators, staff and teachers.

One simple step could make a huge improvement, according to Ignacio Ríos of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color. Student handbooks – particularly sections on student discipline policies – are difficult if not impossible to find on schools’ websites, he said.

“I’ve been using computers all my life, and I had to search extensively through the websites” to find some sort of handbook, Ríos said. Several of the handbooks were only in English, he added, while many parents in the district only speak Spanish.

Board members largely deferred to President Dr. Audrey Yamagata-Noji when it came to addressing the activists’ requests. She asked staffers to consider creating a supportive schools climate committee.

“It would be great to continue to have an avenue” with parents and community members who put so much effort into giving input, she said.

Yamagata-Noji also reiterated that the board had asked for restorative justice to be included in the accountability plan – an apparent hint to staff to add the language.

Many of the activists’ requests have already been incorporated into their accountability plan, officials said after the meeting, emphasizing that ongoing discipline reforms are making a big impact.

Through their discipline reform program, known as PBIS, district officials say they’ve already seen a 50-percent drop in suspensions and 75-percent reduction in suspensions for willful defiance.

Restorative justice practices have already been embraced by the district and are in place at schools, said Doreen Lohnes, the district’s assistant superintendent for support services. The approach is one option school officials can use for more serious disciplinary issues, she added.

Previously, activists have commended district officials for embracing restorative justice policies, but said implementation at the school-site level has been inconsistent.

Privately, some district officials emphasize that establishing restorative justice requires changing some of the teachers’ and administrators’ longstanding practices when it comes to discipline, and that it doesn’t happen overnight.

Also on Tuesday, the district held its public hearing on a new $626 million budget, which is expected to include an overall increase in staffing. No members of the public spoke up on the item.

The accountability plan and budget will come back to the board for more public comment, and final approval, on June 24.

Under California’s new school funding system, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, school districts are supposed to proactively work with the public on how to spend millions in extra funds for high-needs students. Among other requirements, they must establish local accountability plans.

But when Santa Ana Unified’s draft plan was introduced last month, Yamagata-Noji noted that key elements of document were missing, such as projected price tags and actions to achieve its goals.

Now the accountability plan includes much more detail, including dollar figures for how about $56 million in funds would be spent.

Topping the spending list are $19 million for teachers and staff development, and about $7 million to “support learning opportunities” for special education students.

(Click here to read the latest proposed accountability plan, which starts on page 173).

As far as student discipline, the current accountability plan calls for reducing suspension days by 10 percent in the coming school year. Parents and activists who spoke at the hearing wanted steeper reductions, while staff emphasized the progress that’s already been made in recent years.

Beyond potential benefits to school climate, school districts have a financial incentive to cut down on suspensions and expulsions.

Schools are largely funded based on the number of days that students are in class, known as average daily attendance or ADA.

As a result, suspensions currently lead to Santa Ana Unified losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding each year, based on school district and state figures.

As part of the local control process, district leaders have been forced to re-adjust the way they look at their own budget. All of the district’s $600 million-plus in spending is now tied to overall goals, and more specific objectives, around student achievement, engagement and learning conditions.

“This is a totally different budget approach than schools have had” for probably 50 years, said Dr. Rick Miller, the district’s superintendent.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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